Tag Archives: Digital History

History Spaces (V)

In this, the concluding post in my series on history spaces, I want to take up the hardest question of all — how we might find the physical spaces we need to take the sort of creative and new approaches to digital history, online education, and undergraduate research I’ve advocated for here.

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, of our institutions have extra space lying around near our departmental offices that they would be willing to let us have, retrofit, and repurpose. And even if such spaces were just sitting there waiting to be used in new and different ways, it’s probably unlikely that a history department would get to call first dibs. We’re more likely to lose out to our colleagues in the STEM disciplines, the business school, or other programs that bring in larger enrollments and more external funding.

10250968414_cdf0d135e9_nThat being the case, all we have left to work with are our departmental spaces themselves. Unfortunately, if your department is anything like mine, the way your offices are set up right now doesn’t really lend itself to developing new and exciting spaces for student/faculty collaboration. Which leaves us with only one really viable alternative. To get new spaces that will serve us well over the coming decades, we’re going to have to give up something, and that something is going to have to be our private faculty offices.

Yes, I know that to even suggest that a professor give up his/her private office is about as heretical as anything I could possibly suggest. But before you click away to something less likely to elevate your blood pressure, hear me out.

Let’s all be honest for just a minute. Raise your hand if every one of your colleagues uses his/her office for more than 20 hours per week every week. Anyone? No? I didn’t think so. The fact is, every history department in the United States has plenty of office space that is used less than 20 hours per week — much of it for less than 15 hours. And when they are in use, what do we do in our offices? Most of us — not all, I grant, but most — use our offices primarily for prepping our classes, meeting with students, grading, and catching up on email. Very few historians I know do significant research and writing in those departmental offices. That work, as I suggested in my first post in this series, mostly takes place in archives, libraries, or at home.

So, if we have all this space that is being used less than half time, there are two possible alternatives for how we might reconfigure our office spaces to make them into what we want. The first alternative is, in some ways, the simplest — shared offices. Bob, who Booksteaches MWF this semester has the office those days, and Stan, who teaches TR, has it the two other days.

But what about my books???

Trust me, I know. I too love my books and just sitting in my office looking at them makes me happy. But, since we’re being brutally honest here, how about this as a solution to your books. You get to keep every book that you’ve taken down off the shelf in the past 18 months. All the rest have to go home. In my case, that would open up something like 70 percent of my shelf space. Maybe more if I’m being really honest.

The second alternative, and the one that would have to require some serious re-thinking of how we work in our departments, is to move to an open floor plan — no, not cubicles — where individual workspaces are surrounded by offices that can be used for private meetings, project work, or private calls. Almost every other industry in the United States has moved to open floor plans and higher education just can’t be so special, so exceptional, that it couldn’t work for us as well.

1315-Peachtree-Perkins-Will-6Industries where professionals have to engage in creative, intellectual work have found ways to make open floor plans successful and report that collaboration among colleagues, general employee happiness, and overall productivity have gone up rather than down. This image is from the offices of Perkins+Will, an architectural firm in Atlanta, Georgia with a substantial higher ed practice. The main common space shown here holds dozens of workspaces for the architects and is ringed by glassed in offices that are used for various ad hoc purposes — the kinds of purposes I have been describing in my earlier posts. And, you’ll note, everyone has a window. I don’t know about you, but I certainly prefer natural light over florescent tubes.

If the very idea of giving up your private office hasn’t sent you away yet, try this experiment. Make a simple sketch of the total office space your department occupies. Then think carefully about the kinds of new spaces you’d like to have. Do you want a maker lab? Do you want group work spaces for students taking online courses? Do you want a “history lab” where you, several colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students can all work together on long term research projects? How about a new classroom that your department controls and that houses the technology, cartons of artifacts, or whatever, that you’d like to have available all the time?

If you were to halve the number of private offices (option #1, shared offices) that your department has, how much space would that free up? Would it be enough for the cool new spaces you envision? Or, if you were to move to an open floor plan like the one pictured above (option #2), how much space would that free up?

You might object to the whole idea I’ve laid out over the past few days on the basis of pessimism about your institution’s willingness to invest in reconfigured department space. Before you do, it’s worth sitting down with whoever is in charge of your campus spaces — an architect, a space planner, a facilities director — and just have a conversation with them. I can say that all across the United States people who fill those roles at colleges and universities are engaged in a very interesting and dynamic conversation about how campus buildings need to be retrofitted to meet the learning needs of future students and the research needs of future faculty. See if your campus is a member of the Society for College and University Planning. If so, then someone on campus has been at least partly connected to these conversations.

If so, you may just be surprised to find that you have a receptive audience, maybe even a willing partner, especially if you go in an offer up something — the footprint of your department — in exchange for something new and exciting.

The alternative, I’m sorry to say, is for us to sit in our offices, with our books, lamenting that those STEM people keep getting all the good spaces on campus.

Teaching Digital History: Beyond Tech Support

I taught my first “digital humanities” course in the spring of 1998 when I was a visiting assistant professor at Grinnell College. My students created a “virtual archive” of primary sources, building a website that made it easy (in 1998 terms) to access the sources they placed in the archive. They wrestled with such things as metadata, whether or not to post the sources in both English and the original language, user interface, and website design issues. While they liked the class, that group of pioneering students found their lack of technical knowledge – when it came to such things as website design and information architecture – to be very frustrating and inhibiting.

Fifteen years later, not much has changed.

Sure, the technology has changed a lot, and there are many tools that have lowered the bar of entry for students to start building digital humanities projects. But the challenges I faced in 1998 are, in many ways, the same challenges I face today. Every course I teach that has a digital humanities component requires me to spend a significant amount of time getting the class up to speed with the technologies they need to use so they can create whatever it is that either I’ve assigned or they’ve determined they ought to create.

I find that I am doing just as much tech support in 2013 as I did in 1998, and all that time devoted to tech support detracts substantially from the final results my students achieve. We just don’t get to spend enough time on the important and interesting historical and humanities issues that are central to the course. And my students are often just as frustrated, if not more frustrated, as I am by this problem.

There are plenty of reasons why many undergraduate students come into our digital humanities classes ill prepared to do the work we expect. Despite their facility with the technology when it comes to making connections with others, locating that video/song/story/picture/meme they are interested in, they are often very inexperienced with digital work beyond the creation of a slideware presentation.

One solution would be to urge our colleagues to add a digital “making” course to the general education curriculum. But doing that means either adding one more course to often overly burdensome general education requirements, or deleting some other course, with all the controversy such a change to the general education requirements can cause on our campuses.

Another possible solution, and the one I plan to start advocating, is to try to break free from the 14 week semester or 10 week quarter when we teach the digital humanities. The semester/quarter, it turns out, is just not enough time to do sophisticated work in this emerging field. My proposed solution is a new digital history “course” that will extend over multiple semesters, giving students the opportunity to enroll for one, two, three, or even four semesters, as they work together to realize a much larger and more sophisticated group project than is possible in just 14 weeks.

The idea I have in mind lives somewhere between a standard course and an internship and so for lack of a better term, I’m calling it a workshop. We have no such name or classification in our catalog, so I’ll end up having to call it a course, unless I can get away with calling it a lab, which is actually much closer to the reality of what I have in mind. Because I’m also very interested in learning spaces, I’m planning to use this “course” or “lab” or whatever as a way of experimenting with the intersection between public digital history and making space on a college campus.

Right now I have a draft proposal just starting to float around campus. My hope is that by the end of the summer I’ll have something acceptable enough that I can start it through the necessary approvals that will then lead to a roll out of the course in the fall of 2014. Once I get some feedback on version 0.1, I’ll post it here for further public comment. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from people who have been teaching digital humanities to undergraduates – what has worked, what hasn’t?

Auf Wiedersehen, Mein Freund

Over the weekend my friend and colleague Peter Haber passed away after an extended illness. I was only fortunate enough to know Peter for the past four years, but I benefitted greatly from his friendship, his collegiality, his ideas, and his good humor.

Like my former colleague Roy Rosenzweig, Peter was a “connector” — one of those people who brought others together for the benefit of everyone. Through Peter I have met and begun to work with a number of colleagues in Switzerland and Austria, colleagues I never would have met otherwise. More importantly, though, my understanding of digital history and digital humanities is so much richer for having read Digital Past. Geschichtswissenschaft im digitalen Zeitalter (2011). What Peter brought to the study of digital history was a scientific rigor, a style of analysis, that is so often lacking in English language scholarship on our field. If I could quibble with one thing about the edition of the book that I own, it is the photograph of Peter on the back cover. In that photo, he seems dark and mysterious. Those who knew him well, know he was anything but dark or mysterious.

Perhaps the most tangible evidence of Peter the Connector is his co-authored volume (with Marin Gasteiner), Digitale Arbeitstechniken (2010). When I read these essays I came away with a much better sense of the kinds of work being done by my German-speaking colleagues in digital history — work I would likely not know if Peter and Martin had not collected it. More importantly, though, I began to think about several issues near and dear to me in new and different ways. That is what the best scholarship does for us.

But really, Peter’s greatest academic contribution, in many ways, has been Hist.net, perhaps the longest-lived digital history blog in any language. With his close friend and collaborator Jan Hodel, Peter spent more than a decade making all things digital and historical available and accessible to a wide audience. I knew of the blog before I knew Peter and Jan, and one of my happiest professional moments was the day I received an email from the two of them inviting me to speak at a conference in Basel. For my own family health reasons, I couldn’t attend that meeting and so I was very pleased (and relieved) when they kindly invited me back the following year to speak in Basel. That meeting was the starting point of our three way friendship and collaboration on Global Perspectives on Digital History, a project that kept us connected until he became too sick to continue.

One the most enjoyable days I’ve spent in the past several years was with Peter, when he was still feeling fine, touring the Fondation Beyeler, then returning to Basel for a coffee. That is the Peter I will remember. But I will also remember the Peter who, when you said something he didn’t entirely agree with, would cock and eyebrow, pause, and then ask a probing question that politely disagreed, while trying to find a way that the two of us could agree. I will miss both of those Peters very much.


If Only Roy Were Here To See This

Today I saw the notice from the American Historical Association that there will be 23 separate sessions at the Association’s annual meeting devoted to digital history/digital humanities topics.

If only Roy Rosenzweig were here to see his vision being realized at last.

Seeing the variety of topics covered at these sessions, I realized that I’ve made a mistake in planning to skip the meeting this year. I actually haven’t been to an annual meeting in a couple of years, largely because I had kind of burned out on the whole experience, but also because it had been a while since I had seen a panel on the program that I might have actually wanted to attend. Not so this year. There are at least a dozen offerings on the program that I’m sorry I won’t be able to sit in on.

Kudos to the program committee for upping the digital presence at the annual meeting. I guess I’ll have to put it back on my travel schedule for next year. And, darn it all, the meeting will be in New Orleans…I hate it when that happens.